A Trip to New Orleans – Part 1

Having been advised at work that I really should start using more vacation days (they don’t carry over from year to year, and not using them messes up the accounting), I looked over the calendar to see when would be a good time to use some of them. I noted that this year (2015), Halloween fell on a Saturday. “So,” I said to myself. “Where would be a cool place to spend Halloween? Especially when you can take the Monday after it off, too, and because the next day after that is Election Day and your office is closed, so you won’t have to leave first thing Sunday morning?”

A few moments of pondering, and the answer came to me. “New Orleans! They do a great Halloween! Home of Mardi Gras, parades, costumes, and Bourbon Street! It will be a blast!”

But before I can get to New Orleans, I must get to New Orleans…

It’s long been a desire of mine to take a long, cross-country trip by rail. Hoping to catch some of the old glory of trains like the 20th Century Limited. The old “See America at See Level” deal. And you don’t have to deal with the annoying, possibly humiliating, and likely ineffective TSA security checks. I looked online, and as it happens, Amtrak has a train they call “The Crescent” which goes from New York City to New Orleans! Hooray! One train, straight on through from start to finish! This will be cool! All I need to do now is decide if I want a berth or if I can rough it and sleep in a “reserved coach seat”. A look at the ticket prices….and I can survive sleeping in a seat. Especially since various sources talk about how comfortable the seats are. Sure, it’s a 30 hour trip one way, but I can handle it. I’m taking a little extra time off, anyway.

The first thing I noted about the seat is that there’s plenty of leg room. Much, much more than any airplane I’ve been on. The next thing I noted is that there were a lot of individual “controls”, like that on an airplane. A footrest and tray table on the back of the seat in front of me, a “recline seat” button, an individual light, and a black knob that did nothing I could determine. I next noted that the seat seemed to have been designed for someone other than me. There was absolutely no lower back support. This could be a problem, even though I did bring one of those travel neck pillow things with me. Finally, though I didn’t notice it right away, there’s no arm rest between the seats. You *will* find yourself literally rubbing elbows with a seat mate if you have one.

Now we’re underway. And we experience the neglect of our national rail system by Congress. Now to be fair, there are a lot of demands on our national budget. Everyone wants more funding. But it seems that Amtrak comes in for special disdain from most members of a certain political faction, who constantly vote to slash its budget. Seems that it would be cost-effective to improve and upgrade it into something that we as a nation could actually be proud of. But no, their party dogma is that the federal government cannot do anything right, so they actively work to prevent the federal government from working.

Where was I? Oh, right. Northern New Jersey.

If this is a fair example of Amtrak, than it’s not much more than a glorified commuter train. A little noisy, unsteady, and almost comfortable.

And the scenery? The back side of warehouses and storage places, scrap dealers, and construction yards. And once we crossed into the former Confederacy, it became mostly trees. And swamps. Absolutely nothing really worth taking photos of. Even if you weren’t moving too fast for anything to be more than a blur. Sure, there might be a lot of historical or cultural interest along the way, but it’s not visible from a train window at sixty miles an hour.

The food, at least in the dining car, is OK. A bit overpriced (especially for the snack foods in the club car), but you’re a captive audience. If you do plan on a long train trip, bring your own snacks…. Don’t forget water, either. The supply of free drinking water is limited, and the stuff coming out of the rest room sinks isn’t drinkable.

One more tip: In coach, sit as close as possible to the front of the train. That’s where the rest rooms are. And use the handicapped one when you can – it’s bigger. Though guys still have an interesting challenge in front of them….

I suppose that if you live in one of the small towns visited by Amtrak (like Laurel MS, where I saw a painted sign on the side of a building near the station that proudly proclaimed that Laurel was on Amtrak’s Crescent line) and don’t have any other decent transit options, or just happen to be going between cities that are a short distance away via the rails, then Amtrak is a good choice. But for any long distance travel between major cities, go by air.

I hate to say it, but it’s true.

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